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More on the Jewish Setting of John’s Gospel-Context, Vocabulary and Audience

Previously I have written about the Jewish setting of John’s Gospel, although questions remain with regard to the specific audience that John was writing to. Matthew’s Gospel was written to a Jewish audience, Mark to Roman readers and Luke to a Greek or Gentile audience. Another important consideration is that for almost a score of centuries, sadly some have misused John’s Gospel to support antisemitism, whilst others more encouragingly, have justifiably emphasised the prominent Jewish context that runs throughout. Can these views be reconciled?

Whilst I do not agree with everything he writes, Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg from the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies presents a compelling case. In his book ‘The Jewish Gospel of John-Discovering Jesus, King of all Israel’ he argues that John was writing to a Samaritan audience, which helps to explain the various nuances and use of the term, ‘the Jews’ throughout his account. But firstly I will consider the context and vocabulary used in John’s Gospel before considering the audience and his claims.


Context is always important. In terms of the purpose for writing, Matthew portrays Jesus as the King, Mark the Servant, Luke shows the Humanity and John the Divinity of the Lord Jesus. The various groups represented included the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and Herodians and geographically the Judeans, Galileans and Samaritans. Careful analysis reveals that at times the respective groups mentioned above were sometimes in opposition with each other and at other times worked cooperatively.


Vocabulary is also important. In the NKJV, John’s Gospel uses the term ‘Rabbi’ more often than the other gospels. Matthew uses the term ‘Rabbi’ four times, Mark thrice, Luke does not use this term and John uses ‘Rabbi’ on eight occasions (John 1:38, 49; 3:2, 26; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8). Seven of these references refer to Yeshua (Jesus), whilst one reference, John 3:26 refers to John the Baptist. Noticeably, Nicodemus, described by John as ‘a ruler of the Jews’ and by Jesus as ‘the teacher of Israel’ also referred to Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ and approached Him at night stating, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him (John 3:2).”

The word ‘feast’ is featured most prominently in John’s Gospel, eighteen times, compared with five occasions respectively in Matthew and Mark and in eight cases in Luke. By comparison in the Torah, ‘feast’ is used five times in Genesis, thirteen times in Exodus and Leviticus, and seven times respectively in both Numbers and Deuteronomy. Most of these references in John’s Gospel relate to Pesach (Passover) of which there are nine references in John’s Gospel and John mentioned the term ‘Passover’ more than any other book in the Bible other than 2nd Chronicles which has seventeen references. In 2nd Chronicles all of the seventeen references are found in chapters 30 and 35 and relate to the godly influence and reforms of King Hezekiah and King Josiah. John’s Gospel also mentions the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2) and uniquely Hannukah, the Feast of Dedication in John 10:22.

What is most noticeable is the frequency in John’s Gospel in which the phrase ‘the Jews’ is employed, no less than 66 occasions. Acts is the only book in the Bible that has more references to ‘the Jews,’ on 68 occasions and Esther contains 41 references. By comparison with the other gospels, Matthew mentions ‘the Jews’ five times, Mark six times and Luke five times. The all-important question however is considering the various groups represented in the gospels and also present at the time, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Herodians, Judeans, Galileans and Samaritans; what exactly did John mean when he wrote ‘the Jews’ and how does the use of that term relate to the audience to which he is writing?


Constructive responses to identify ‘the Jews’ in John’s Gospel, in view of the wider groups represented, usually designate the Judeans (those from the region of Judea) or the Jewish authorities. Note also, Simon the Zealot, was one of Yeshua’s disciples (Luke 6:15). Whilst the Essenes are not mentioned in Scripture, they were important in preserving the Dead Sea Scrolls and are mentioned in Philo and Josephus. In John 4:45, “the Galileans received Him, having seen all the things He did in Jerusalem at the feast: for they had also gone to the feast.”

Remember there were times when the Jewish authorities either cooperated or disagreed amongst themselves and that the Sadducees and Pharisees formed the Sanhedrin Council. But there were also occasions when some Pharisees worked together with some Herodians against Jesus (Matthew 22:16; Mark 3:6; 12:13). On the other hand Nicodemus, a Pharisee, speaks most affirmingly towards Jesus in John 3:2, questioned the accusations from other Pharisees in John 7:50-52 and brings about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes and together with Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council and buries Him in John 19:38-42; cf. Luke 23:50-56.

Whilst the term ‘Judeans’ is only mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 2:14 and ‘Judean’ in Nehemiah 11:36, the term ‘Judea’ is used in John’s Gospel and the other gospels. Interestingly in John 7:1-2 the Feast of Tabernacles was approaching and Jesus walked in Galilee for He did not want to walk in Judea, because ‘the Jews’ sought to kill them. That use of the term ‘the Jews’ could refer to either the Judeans (from the region of Judea), or some Jewish authorities. However we read of Judeans amongst other groups in other gospels that were following Jesus. “Great multitudes followed Him-from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan (Matthew 4:25; cf. Mark 3:7; Luke 6:17).”

The Samaritans

Until this point the Samaritans have not been considered and Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg presents a robust case that John is writing with the Samaritans (those remaining from the ethnically mixed Northern Tribes of Israel) in view. In support he emphasises the account of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, which is not mentioned in the other gospels. In John 4:9 the woman of Samaria asks Jesus why He as a Jew, would ask a Samaritan woman for a drink? John writes “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” She also states, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship (John 4:20).” Part of Yeshua’s response included the statement, “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews (John 4:22).” The fact that John records Jesus stating ‘salvation is of the Jews’ helps us recognise that John is not an antisemitic gospel and that we need to be exceptionally careful in how we interpret the term ‘the Jews’ in John’s Gospel.

We must also consider Yeshua’s instructions to His disciples prior to His ascension, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).” In Acts 8:1 a great persecution arose against the congregation in Jerusalem and other than the apostles, they were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Then in Acts 8:4-8, those who were scattered went everywhere and Philip preached the Messiah in the city of Samaria and multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip.

Initially the disciples were not sent either to the Samaritans of the Gentiles but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5-6). In Luke 9:53 a village of the Samaritans did not receive Jesus. On the other hand, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 and in Luke 17:11-19, ten lepers were cleansed but the Samaritan was the only one who when healed, returned, glorified God, fell down on his face and gave thanks to Him.

Although John writes at the end of his account that Jesus did many things and if they were all recorded he supposes that even the world itself could not contain the books that could be written; nonetheless if John’s Gospel were written with the Samaritans in view, one might expect these details to be included. Nonetheless, the Lord is sovereign and inspired John’s writing as the rest of Scripture and wrote exactly what needs to be read.


Either a surface level reading of John’s gospel or a prejudiced view against John’s writing may lead someone to conclude that John’s Gospel is antisemitic. Tragically those that are antisemitic have misused John’s Gospel against the Jewish people which is clearly the opposite of what John intended and this has caused sustained and disastrous consequences. John’s Gospel must be studied thoroughly concerning both its Jewish setting and in the light of the rest of Scripture.

However when one considers the Jewish context regarding the respective Jewish groups represented, the importance of the feasts and the audience John is writing to, John’s Gospel is actually good news for Jewish people and for everyone. Jesus is Jewish, His disciples were Jewish, the whole setting is thoroughly Jewish and Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, ‘salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4:22).

Whether John’s Gospel was written with the Samaritans in view as Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg states is difficult to state for certain. Certainly, a strong case can be put forward and it does appear to explain some of the nuances related to the term ‘the Jews,’ such as the need to write ‘the Passover of the Jews’ and Jesus went up to Jerusalem (John 2:13), to a potential audience from Samaria who worshipped in a different location, Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem.

There is something of even greater importance, however. John wrote his gospel that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31). Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Some things we will know for certain when we meet the Lord (who was John’s Gospel written to?), but the greatest thing now is to repent, have one’s sins forgiven and to trust and follow the Saviour and to point others to the Messiah who has come and who is coming again.